Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Last Word on Bell (until I actually read the book)

I wrote a few posts on Brian McLaren's latest book A New Kind Of Christianity about 8 months ago. I found his quest for a fresh biblical narrative (he wouldn't use the word metanarrative because he's one of those postmodern types who go by Lyotard's "incredulity towards metanarratives") compelling. After describing the traditional rendering of the biblical story, McLaren had this to say:

Few of us acknowledge that this master-narrative starts with one category of things, good and blessed, and then ends up with two categories of things, good and blessed on the top line and evil and tormented on the bottom....Can we dare to wonder, given an ending that has more evil and suffering than the beginning, if it would have been better for this story never to have begun?

After quoting this I added that "this is a heartfelt question that musn't be swept under the rug." But to paraphrase Bertrand Russell, most Christians would rather die than think about the kind of story they're telling, implicitly and explicitly. 

This is why I welcome Rob Bell's new book. 

It forces us to re-think what we think we know. 

This is good, because the story we think we know is one that ends quite horrifically from most people's perspective. It is a story that needs to be re-imagined. Not re-imagined through the mind of Rob Bell, but re-imagined by seeing afresh the kind of Jesus who has been witnessed to for two thousand years. The Jesus of the Gospels, whose love extended to the most unlikely folk.

This isn't about watering-down the gospel, making it more appealing. 

Besides, the sign of gospel fidelity isn't that it appeals to the least amount of people. 

The sign of gospel fidelity isn't that the judgement of hell is clearly articulated. 

If it was, then those missionaries whose stories are recounted in Acts were deeply unfaithful, because their sermons failed to clearly mention the threat of hell even once. Gospel fidelity can only be measured against the person of Jesus. Is our witness faithful to him as he is? One way we might know that it is is the following:

if we are quite uncomfortable about what we are saying
    because we are talking about someone who is quite unlike us in many ways.

Rob Bell's portrait of Jesus has made many religious people angry, sad, and fearful. I don't know if Bell's portrait is faithful, but I do know that its fruits point in that direction. Of course Bell himself makes many religious people angry, sad, and fearful, so perhaps he's recasting Jesus in his own mould. 

Just like the rest of us. 

Whatever the case, we who think we know not only what we say when we say "God" but also what we say when we say "Jesus" ought to consider the thought that we don't yet know as we ought to know. That doesn't mean we have to read Bell's book to know the truth.

It means we have to read N.T. Wright's book - Jesus and the Victory of God.


Sunday, March 27, 2011

Worth Taking The Time

There is an article in The Guardian entitled 'Why was I born gay in Africa?' It's not pretty, but it is worth taking the time to read it, and worth taking the time to grapple with the truth that it tells.

I don't mean to offend people of my own faith -- or at least some of them anyway! -- but one of the most shocking details told in the story is that a Christian organisation is involved in transforming this inhuman situation. One of the commenters on the piece articulates the irony that the word "Christian" could actually be used in a positive light in such an article. Of course it's naive and reductionist to think that Christians cannot come to the aid of homosexuals who are suffering gross injustices. To think like this is to think the way the media wants us to think - a media that only gives Christians a voice on homosexuality when they are denying homosexual people certain rights.

But it would also be naive to think that the dialogue amongst most Christians vis-a-vis homosexuality goes beyond civil unions and marriage and rights and wrongs. On both sides of the debate homosexual people are treated as little more than embodied ideologies, rerpresentatives of either a thankfully pluralistic, tolerant society, or a regrettably liberal, immoral society, depending on your vantage point. The debate is merely a thinly disguised battle for power - a battle that followers of Jesus should have no interest in fighting.

Instead, being a Christian in the mould of a powerless, homeless, selfless Jesus -- and is there any other mould? -- ought to take us beyond the culture wars and into the lives of those who desperately need the indiscriminate neighbourly love of Christ. Lest Christians forget, this is the same Christ who, without any desire to qualify or explain, could say to the religious people of his day:

"Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you."

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Prolonging The Exodus

Is the relevance of the Exodus today exhausted by it being an event which foreshadows the work of Jesus? Are we too quick to a christocentric reading of Old Testament narrative to the utter exclusion of any ecclesiocentric moments - that is, readings centred on the life of the "called out ones", the church?

Yoder says that in the liberation represented by the Exodus, "what for matters more than what from". Allow Walter Brueggemann to succinctly describe the "what for":

The reality emerging out of the Exodus is not just a new religion or a new religious idea or a vision of freedom but the emergence of a new social community in history, a community that has historical body, that had to devise laws, patterns of governance and order, norms of right and wrong, and sanctions of accountability. The participants in the Exodus found themselves, undoubtedly surprisingly to them, involved in the intentional  formation of a new social community to match the vision of God's freedom.

This was the "what for" for the people called out of Egypt, and it surely represents the "what for" for the called out ones today. Replace "the Exodus" in the above paragraph with "the death and resurrection of Jesus" and we are suddenly talking sensibly, if not uncomfortably, about the church. There may be points of discontinuity, but the free God's vision for his people today is no less radical than his vision for the ones he lead out of Egypt. 

The Exodus, therefore, is more than the supplier of poignant images to grace atonement theory. It is a story which shapes the lives of the people of God today, the ones "on whom the ends of the ages have come". For as Liberation theologian J. Severino Croatto wrote, “we are enjoined to prolong the Exodus event because it was not an event solely for the Hebrews but rather the manifestation of a liberative plan of God for all peoples…an unfinished historical project.”

Is the relevance of the Exodus today exhausted by it being an event which foreshadows the work of Jesus?
That depends on how wide your vision is when it comes to the work of Jesus.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Preaching To Friends

The more I read about preaching, the less my desire is to preach. Stanley Hauerwas is the main culprit in the attempt to curtail my sermonic aspirations. For example, treat the words below as gospel and I'm almost left wondering what else a preacher can do at a pulpit but stand there silently. Perhaps this only further supports Hauerwas's critique of the mind-numbing society that we live in.

...when a sermon is thought to be no more than a speech by the minister to provide advice to help us negotiate life, the content of sermons usually are exemplifications of the superficial and sentimental pieties of a liberal culture. Then we wonder why the mainstream church is dying. Why do you need to come to church to be told that we ought to treat everyone with dignity? Why do you need to come to church to be told we ought to share some of what we have with those who do not have as much as we have? Why do you need to come to church to be told that children say the darndest things? Why do you need to come to church to hear stories that give us insight into the human condition?

It is hard to re-imagine preaching. I recently completed a paper on discipleship, and one of the areas I briefly touched on was "preaching as discipleship" (see below). I'm not sure I avoided all the pitfalls that Hauerwas warned against (despite the fact that I quoted him numerous times!), but I suppose if I only think what Hauerwas thinks then one of us is irrelevent. No prizes for guessing which one.

Preaching is a time for the word of God to be uttered; a word which tears down and builds up, a word which is a summons away from and a call to follow. According to Stanley Hauerwas, “sermons…develop imaginative skills to help us see the world as judged and redeemed by Christ.”  They should tell “a story that makes possible our ability to live lives we do understand”.

Yet too often our preaching is disconnected from people’s reality and fails to make sense of our life of discipleship in this world. An answer is given when there is no question, support is offered when there is no need, and an idea is given when there is no desire to know.

Thus my primary challenge to preachers is this:

Know your congregation. Know their fears, their worries, their insecurities, their hopes, their hurts, their needs, their desires, their joys and their sorrows. Preaching as discipleship can only happen in the context of honest, mutual relatedness. In this context, you do not become a disciple’s psychiatrist, but rather their friend who as a word from God for them [cf. Jer. 37:17].

Henri Nouwen wrote that “perhaps teachers can never be true teachers unless they are, to a certain degree, friends”.  He wrote this in light of Jesus naming his own students “friends” (Jn. 15:15). Are church leaders today afraid to name the members of their congregation ‘friends’? Before we learn how to be good preachers and teachers we must first learn how to be good friends.

To preach as a formative act means teaching people the skill of “fitting their own small story into the larger story of God”.  It is only within the context of this story that the commands of Jesus can be taught wisely. We need not resort to moralizing to get people to behave the right way. Understanding Jesus means understanding that “…the teachings of Jesus are not proposed as ethical principles, but as a summons to that radical commitment which the now-intruding kingdom of God demands…”  As John Howard Yoder puts it, following the commands of Jesus “is not about some legalistic approach to copying Jesus, but rather about participating in Christ”.

Preachers proclaim the reality of the kingdom of God, and ultimately, the reality of the King and our participation with him in the life of the kingdom. Through such preaching we are discipling people by fulfilling what Hauerwas considers to be the task of the preacher – “to show how our lives are unintelligible if Jesus Christ is not the Lord”.

Our preaching should not “settle” matters, but should open up discussion and exploration and new pathways of obedience

Through A Visor, Darkly

According to Camus, the most important question facing us is this: "To decide whether life deserves to be lived or not".

You look at a picture like the one below, a picture of a small, largely untainted, self-assured, unafraid-to-break-dance-in-public, wide-eyed human being who has just begun to play hurling with a bunch of other little human beings - you look at a picture like this, and you think, 'Yes, moments like this deserve to be captured; yes, life deserves to be lived'. 

Perhaps no one can answer Camus's question more truthfully and more accurately than a child. My nephew Luke is showing all the hallmarks of becoming a great theologian, but he may never see the world as clearly as he sees it now - through a visor with those big, brown eyes.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Church Leadership: A Theory

I used to think that women in church leadership was a bad idea. It didn't make sense to me. Most of my experiences of female leadership within Christianity had been slightly off-putting, so I drew the conclusion that that's just not the way it's meant to be. I don't think that way anymore. While the bad experiences have out-weighed the good in terms of frequency, the good experiences have been good. I have learned and grown through the ministry -- through the leadership! -- of women, therefore to illegitimize such ministry and leadership would be to cut myself off from a vital means of God's grace.

Yet the bad experiences remain. What to do with them? Here is my theory:

Many problems with women in leadership stem from the reality that church leadership looks exactly like world leadership. If you are a leader in the church, there is a good chance that you are a leader outside the church, should you have such a life. And the simple truth is that world leadership -- and consequently, church leadership -- is geared towards a particular vision of manhood. That is why often the women we see in leadership seem to be in an unnatural position. We have defined church leadership with a particular type of man in mind, and so the women who've made the cut are women who've danced to our tune. But their dancing looks forced and unbecoming of a lady. When men dance to the tune, it generally looks right.

The crux of my theory is that the tune is wrong.

Any bad experiences I've had of women in leadership is not down to women at all. It is down to the kind of leadership that exists within the church. If the church really adopted leadership in the mould of Jesus, nothing would seem more natural than a woman in church leadership. Not because Jesus was more feminine than masculine, but because he brought the two together and made them one...sort of!

We have created a church structure in which women have to become more "masculine" in order to lead. It is little wonder that in such a structure a woman in leadership is generally off-putting. But all this does is highlight the fundamental flaws in the way we do leadership. If we really knew what leadership looked like, we would know that a woman is as capable of embodying it as a man.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A Miracle

Something written in Barth's Church Dogmatics that I understand! Two things of note for me:

1) I now see how Brueggemann was so heavily influenced by Barth. I imagine reading Barth to be like listening to some old Bob Dylan records. They may be a little obscure at first, but as you become familiar with the language of Dylan you realise just how influential he was on all the artists that you like today.

2) With all this talk of "conversation", was Karl Barth the original Emergent Theologian? Look at the picture to the right, imagine him wearing square lenses, and you know it makes sense.

Here's the passage from Church Dogmatics, which I think is astounding:

“What is man, that thou art mindful of him?” Only one answer can be given, namely, that it was and is the good-pleasure of God to be mindful of him, and to act towards him in this way. In other words, it is not accidentally, nor arbitrarily, nor under any constraint or compulsion of a reality distinct from Himself, but in His own freedom that He is this God, that He is God in this way and not another. It is in virtue of this free and basic kindness that He is the God who makes Himself the Partner of man, and man His partner, in this covenant and conversation, even though He does not owe him this, even though man has no right or claim, even though man deserves the very opposite of His address and self-giving. He is mindful of man because to Him as the God He is, His own glory and man’s salvation, man’s salvation and His own glory, are not two things but one.

A Lesson Learned

This whole Love Wins thing has had scandal mongers scurrying around the blogosphere like teenagers in school who have heard there is a fight going down at some point that day and who are desperate not to miss the action.

I was that teenager. I am that scandal monger. But I have not come out of this with no lessons learned. For example, I know now why I pretty much only read the blogs that are on the sidebar to the right of this page:

Because most of the other blogs out there are depressing. I mean seriously, seriously depressing.

Monday, March 14, 2011

DeYoung, Bell, and Holiness

Kevin DeYoung has criticised Rob Bell's new book at length on his blog.

This review and some others that I've read may well be right in their denials and affirmations about heaven and hell. But there is an implicit message in them that I think is too narrow, and ultimately, unbiblical. The message is this: People go to heaven because of God's love, but people go to hell because of God's holiness (or justice). Bell is being accused of neglecting the holiness of God by denying the eternal, conscious torment of sinners in hell. That's quite an accusation, and one that I think is at least partially unfounded. I say that because to talk only about salvation isn't to not talk about God's holiness: quite the opposite, in fact.

I will not execute my burning anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath. - Hos. 11:9

Kevin DeYoung seems only to leave open the reality that God will execute his burning anger because he is the Holy One. Hosea speaks of God's holiness, his otherness, as the very reason that wrath will be spared. Therefore the tension within God is not "I am loving so I want to save you, but I am holy so I must unleash my anger on you". Tension is described in the passage, but it is the tension of what should have the final word over Israel - judgement or compassion, exile or return? Because God is Holy, judgement is penultimate, but compassion and return are ultimate.

To reinforce the point, Ezekiel speaks of Israel's restoration as occuring for the sake of God's Holy name (Ez. 36). When Yhwh's people are saved, Yhwh's holiness -- not his love, not his holy love, but his holiness -- will be vindicated.

DeYoung and others are keen to attach the 'holy' modifier to Bell's reckless, liberal 'love'. In this understanding, a fundamental question underlying the biblical story, How can a holy God dwell with unholy people?, is answered by the (holy) love of God revealed in the cross of Christ. My point, however, is that the question, How can a holy God dwell with unholy people? can be answered by appealing to very holiness which seems to stand in our way. How can a holy God dwell with unholy people? Because he is holy! Because his holiness is strong enough to cleanse us of our unholiness; a strength revealed in the death and resurrection of Christ.

This isn't to presume on the holiness of God as standing at our beck and call, nor is it to deny God his role as judge. Yet as Stanley Hauerwas said during a radio debate in the UK, "God judges the world, and that's a good thing." Contrary to the implications of DeYoung's review, God is holy, and that's a good thing for the unholy to hear.

Holiness wins.

(For a similar discussion of a narrowly understood biblical word, see this post on justice)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

When The Called Feel Uncalled

(The final episode of Rev. in a nutshell.)

The story begins with the remembrance of a war that is not remembered. The reverend and his sidekick stand silently at a graveside as a gang of teenagers loiter in the graveyard. One of them pokes fun at the two churchmen, asking, “Someone died, have they?” The sidekick has lost his patience: “Millions of brave men and women died for you, so that you could ride your bikes ‘round here and drink Fanta.” The reverend stands idly by, cracks beginning to emerge. His faith in people is dwindling, and very soon so too is his faith in himself. He receives the following review on a church ranking website:

Length of sermon: 2 minutes

Which was three minutes too long.
The Reverend Adam Smallbone talked to his tiny and lifeless congregation about Jesus curing the blind man. He somehow tried to link this story to how people wear masks at the Notting Hill Carnival. It was without scholarship or insight, and the Reverend seemed as bored by his own words as the congregation.
He may have been hungover…

“Why do I bother?” he asks. His questions inevitably turn on God:
“Are you there, God? If so, just a couple of questions. Why do you allow there to be kids who don’t know what World War II is? Why did you send that reviewer on my one bad day? Is that what I deserve? Why is the graveyard strewn with litter? Why do Nazis always live till they’re 96? Why are there no more bumble bees? Why do African women get raped every day by boy soldiers going to get water for their starving village?”

His wife presents a solution: Become agnostic. “All the good priests are; you’ve been agnostic for years, really”. “No I haven’t”, he replies, though he fears he may be heading that way. His wife then presents a second solution: Take the day off. This won’t do either. His life is a calling, and he can’t be “uncalled” for the day. So to the school assembly he goes, awaiting cross-examination “by a whole load of atheist nine-year-olds.”

He asks another question, this time to his young congregation: Who came down the mountain with the Ten Commandments? The only answer forthcoming is “Baby Jesus”. He tells them that it was in fact Moses, but one of the kids “thought the answer is always Jesus, sir”. “No Jesus is not always the answer!” he says, to himself as much as the kids. The cracks are wide open now.

The questions now turn on him. “Are you a vicar?” He is, but for the rest of that day he decides to blow off hospital visits and instead sits on his couch drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, and watching a channel 5 show where Louise Redkanpp helps farmers choose a wife. He even steals a packet of biscuits and tells his wife that he won “60 quid on poker party by bluffing every hand”. She wonders if these things have restored his faith in God. “No, they haven’t”.

He sits in a pub with one of his congregation, looking like misery incarnate. “I’m experiencing a large amount of ontological despair.” He tells his drinking buddy that he feels like “a remnant”. “A remnant of what?” “Of an illusion that people used to believe in.” He goes on:
“I know deep down, of course, that if God made his existence clear and irrefutable it would overwhelm us and deprive us all of free will and independence, but right now, just for once, now I feel like being overwhelmed. Because I am underwhelmed by everything else. By the thoughtlessness and carelessness and neediness of everyone else. If I had been in charge of creation I think I’d have…kept the flowers and the waterfalls and the butterflies and Louise Redknapp, and I’d have left out the malaria, aids, earthquakes, cancer and dementia. Quite frankly I think I’d have done the whole thing a damn sight better.”

His faithlessness escalates to getting drunk at a vicars and tarts party and making a pass at the school headmistress. In more colourful language, his wife tells him to go home, hoping that in the morning he will have recovered from his “biannual crisis”. On his meander back to the vicarage he comes across the gang of teens and picks a fight with them, only to be interrupted by a policeman. “Are you the parish vicar here?” he is asked once more. “Of course I’m the bloody vicar! Why don’t you stop asking me that!” He barely believes his own answer now.

He thinks he is being arrested, but he is actually being taken to a hospital to give a dying woman her last rites. He doesn’t feel up to the task, but the policeman will not have it. “Are you her vicar or not?” he is asked, this time the question assuming personal significance. The reverend pauses for a moment, and then says:
“I heard the voice of the LORD saying ‘Whom shall I send and who will go for us?’ And then I said ‘Here I am. Send me.’”

This passage from Isaiah 6 was read at his ordination. At his breaking point it has come as a fresh call. He gives the dying woman her last rites.

Looking out over London from a hospital balcony, he reflects on all that has transpired, and contemplates his future as one who believes that God has sent him to this place, to these people. The policeman walks over to him and offers him a drink from his hipflask.

“I’m fine, thanks.”

Rob Bell In Controversy Shock

I get the feeling that for a Christian blog to have any credibility the words "Rob" and "Bell" need to have been mentioned in the last couple of weeks. So here it goes...

It turns out that Rob Bell is controversial. Who knew? A big group of blogging gospel defenders are not happy with his latest book that hasn't been released yet. In fact they are "grieved" and "in mourning". Apparently the notion that God might just end up reconciling the whole world to himself through Christ is a terrible and tragic one. Why, exactly? This mentality reminds me of something Henri Nouwen wrote about teaching to a competitive culture. He remarked that people are only happy with their good grades when those around them have done badly. If everyone gets good grades then we don't really care about how well we've done. Might this also apply to salvation?

In a book review it was said that Bell's position is unclear and incohesive. But can't we throw those same words at the apostle Paul? He is, after all, the person who wrote universalist-friendly passages such as Colossians 1:15-20, Romans 5, Philippians 2:6-11 etc. 

If those who are saying "farewell" to Rob Bell would just take their head out of the sand and realise that what they think is settled may not be as settled as they think, fruitful discussion amongst Christians might ensue. But God forbid that anything like that should happen.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Pentateuch in Song

I'm writing a song on the Pentateuch based on the template of the Dylan epic 'Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts'. I'm calling it, 'Yahweh, Israel and the Promised Land'. When it's completed it may be the best thing I've ever written. Or the worst. Here's one of eleven verses (so far), which will go some way towards making your mind up:

Now Yahweh said to Abraham, “Go from here to a land that I will show”
“I will make you a great nation and my blessings in abundance you will know”
“In you all the families of the earth will be blessed a great amount.”
Abraham believed God and as righteousness it did count
He gazed into Israel’s future and he journeyed towards the Promised Land

Whatever else, this has been a really fun experience so far. Mind you, trying to actually play and sing the song is a nightmare. I'll have to work on that if I'm to entertain nerdy theological circles in the future - something I very much plan on doing.